The New Yorker
Way Down East
In 1919 and 1920, in the midst of an epochal boom of urbanization, D. W. Griffith filmed “Way Down East,” a pastoral melodrama set in a nostalgic small-town and rural America, which I discuss in the clip below. The director, born in 1875 in Kentucky, had already made quite clear his notion of the squalor and decadence of city life (as in “Broken Blossoms”). What’s equally clear is that city life was visually uninspiring to him. Griffith, who was the first to develop the cinema as an epic art, was also, in effect, an American Impressionist who used the camera to capture the natural landscape. One of the two main visual tropes I identify with Griffith is the wind in the leaves, of which there’s plenty in “Way Down East.” Like the French Impressionists, Griffith was also devoted to portraiture, or the inner landscape. Though he didn’t literally invent the close-up, he developed it as a crucial aspect of cinematic grammar, and, artistically, conjured from it an extraordinary range and depth of emotion—not least because of his great actress, Lillian Gish, whose face is the center of this movie.
She wrote a terrific autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” (quoted at EyeWitness to History), in which she describes the rigors of this shoot—in particular, those she and the crew faced when shooting the climactic ice-floe scene:
Mr. Griffith intended to shoot all the exterior scenes outdoors, including the blizzard. He wouldn’t be satisfied with the fake fury of a studio storm….
The blizzard finally struck in March. Drifts eight feet high swallowed the studio. The trees on Orient Point lashed the sky and groaned, as the chains that held them together were stretched taut. Mr. Griffith, Billy [Bitzer—Griffith’s cameraman], the staff, and the assistant directors stood with their backs to the gale, bundled up in coats, mufflers, hats, and gloves. To hold the camera upright, three men lay on the ground, gripping the tripod legs. A small fire burned directly beneath the camera to keep the oil from freezing….
At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.
Above the howling storm, Mr. Griffith shouted: “Billy, move in! Get that face! That face—get that face!”
“I will,” Billy shouted, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera!” We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as the result of exposure. Though he worked with his back to the wind whenever possible, Mr. Griffith’s face froze. A trained nurse was at his side for the rest of the blizzard and the winter scenes.
Griffith’s Homeric artistry and his painterly insight—his view of the conflict between nature’s horrors (those of a blizzard and those found in the hearts of predators) and its glories (the peaceful landscape and the heart of true virtue)—come to full flower in “Way Down East.”